Economics God’s Way (1)
“…you shall take five shekels for each one individually; you shall take them in the currency of the shekel of the sanctuary, the shekel of twenty gerahs. Numbers 3.47
The value of currency
We begin now to consider specific areas of public policy decision-making. Our first topic will be the economy, beginning with the understanding of money and transactions that we find in the Law of God. Obviously, we can’t say everything there is to say about money. Nor does the Law of God. But in the Law we find confirmation for the use of money in transactions and at least one important economic principle for conserving the value of money.
From ancient times people have understood the value of currency in carrying on transactions with one another. While bartering has always existed as a means of accomplishing economic transactions, bartering is neither convenient nor practical in every case. Some form of money, whether of precious metal, stones, sea shells, coins, or other commodities, has existed in virtually every society and among even the most primitive of people. Money is a convenience which, once a people begins to use it, quickly becomes a necessity.
The basic unit of Hebrew currency appears to have been the silver shekel, which weighed, according to the marginal note of the ESV, 2/5 oz. or 11 grams. The phrase, “shekel of the sanctuary”, which recurs at various places in the Law of God, suggests a fixed standard unit of measure. Much as the Bureau of Standards in Washington conserves standards for length, weight, and so forth, against which all rulers, measuring cups, and the like are manufactured, so in ancient Israel the priests and Levites were entrusted with a “shekel of the sanctuary” which served as a standard for all shekels that were offered for exchange in ancient Israel.
This was ancient Israel’s earliest form of money, and right away we encounter an economic principle concerning the use of money which will seem strange, but which contains the wisdom of God for a good society.
Shekels were comprised of silver and had to weigh 11 grams, or, as much as the shekel of the sanctuary. They were not to be “cut” with other metals or regarded as shekels unless they contained the proper amount of silver. Those who used shekels understood that, at any time, their shekel could be referred to the shekel of the sanctuary to make sure it was the proper weight.
Shekels in ancient Israel were probably just lumps of silver that could be shaved or melted as needed. For ease of transaction, we can assume that certain “lumps” or bags of shekels were approximately the same size and could be traded without having to be weighed every time, although “just weights and balances” were available when needed. Suspect shekels, we assume, could be brought to the “bureau of standards” at the tabernacle or temple for comparison, and those who circulated bogus currency—early counterfeiters—would be subject to the requirements of restorative justice set forth in the eighth and ninth commandments.
Only later in Israel’s history did gold begin to be used as a currency and coins were struck as matters of convenience. From the beginning of Israel’s economy, silver was the standard for the currency, and the sanctuary shekel determined the true weight and value of silver used in economic transactions.
A guard against inflation and deflation
The Law of God thus intended to guard the economy it outlines against inflation and deflation of the currency. It did this by requiring that all trade involving currency should be in the proper currency of precious metal according to a fixed weight and universal standard. Currency was not the only—and perhaps not even the most common—medium of transaction. There was undoubtedly more bartering than actual exchanging of currency in the economy of ancient Israel, but even that, as we shall see, was regulated according to fixed standards. But where currency—the shekel—was involved, the Law of God intended to keep it stable and reliable.
A just economy requires a stable currency, the value of which can be relied on in every transaction, generation after generation. It is therefore unjust, according to God’s Law, to enact policies that manipulate the value of currency on nothing more than the fiat declaration of the powers-that-be. Printing money just because we “need more money” is not a policy the Law of God would condone. Nor is basing an economy on paper money circulated without proper backing.
We frequently experience periods of inflation or deflation in the economy, when the value of money goes up or down for various reasons. Not the least of these is the federal government’s attempt to manipulate the value of currency by printing and circulating money without any standard to back it other than the faith of the people. When other forms of money, such as credit, are combined with such “loose” money, the economy can fluctuate, frequently provoking more federal intervention in the money supply.
The American economy has not always been so “free floating” as it is today. For many years, from 1879 to 1933, a gold standard stood back of the money available for the needs of the American public. One can argue that abandoning that standard—which was finally accomplished in 1971—set the economy free for rapid and expansive growth and the increase of widespread wealth. But, as we have seen, this growth and wealth are unreliable sources of hope and tend to distract the population from more important matters, such as justice and love. Further, the years 1879-1933 were boom years for the American economy while a gold standard maintained a reliable currency.
The Law of God requires, for a just economy, the conservation of wealth, and the proper stewardship of all property, that policies should be enacted which preserve the value of the currency, according to fixed and reliable standards. Any policies which threaten the stability of currency should be carefully controlled if not outright opposed. We may not be able to return to a fixed standard in this country, not in the short run; but, at the very least, we should seek policies that curtail the manipulation of money for political purposes. In the long run, such practices will threaten not only the economy but the social system as well.
The Law of God teaches that a nation’s currency should be stable, reliable, and firm. Believers, in our own use of money, must consider what we can do to maintain the stability of our currency. And we must look carefully at all government policies that weaken the currency in the guise of making more of it available.
1. Why was it important that Israel should have a standard shekel? Do you think having a standard shekel would have affected other aspects of life in Israel besides transactions? For example, would a standard shekel have been a constant witness to the other standards encoded in God’s Law? Explain.
2. Our government frequently prints more money to support government projects and programs. While doing so can sound attractive, what is the long-term effect of such policies on the currency? How does this jeopardize the wellbeing of future generations?
3. Is there anything we as individuals can do to help make sure our nation’s currency remains stable and reliable into the generations to come?
Next steps—Preparation: Do you talk about money in your home? Should you? Could talking about money help you make better use of your money? Start a conversation on money, using the shekel as the starting point.
What is the place of the Law of God in the Christian’s life? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, answers this question and shows us again why Jesus taught us that keeping the Law is an indispensable part of our calling in God’s Kingdom. Order your free copy of The Ground for Christian Ethics by clicking here. To gain a better understanding of how the Law of God applies in daily life, order a free copy of our book, A Kingdom Catechism, by clicking here.
Support for ReVision comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.
And please prayerfully consider supporting The Fellowship of Ailbe with your prayers and gifts. You can contribute online, via PayPal or Anedot, or by sending a gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 103 Reynolds Lane, West Grove, PA 19390.
Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.